Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Rejecting the Shame

 So, I talk a lot about the need for the church to both recognize its working class and poor members and to actively build worshipping community in working class and poor communities. I always root this call in personal experience, as a person who grew up in and remains deeply connected to working class and poor communities.

Today, however, I’m going to get a little more personal. I talk every day to people who are struggling. Who are living with parents or kicked out by parents or couch surfing with family members. Who are living on the streets or sleeping in cars. Who have lost jobs and end up losing homes. Who have never worked a steady job because they have grown up in a community where steady jobs are hard to find.
I talk a lot about that.

But I don’t always talk about me. My life. My experience.
Partly because I don’t want to appear as if I am begging for sympathy. I’m not. I’m not sorry for myself that I’ve experienced poverty and I don’t want you to be either.

The other reason, though—is more insidious. It is shame.
If I admit that almost all the jobs I have ever worked have paid minimum wage, will you think I am unambitious?

If I admit that I have lived with family members for several years of my adult life, will you think less of me? Will you think of me as a failure?

If I tell about my years in seminary, when I’d skip more meals than I could count (especially if my meal card was getting low) and visit academic book signings just for the free food, will you laugh?
If I mention that my shoes often wore out before I had money to replace them—will you think of me as “poor white trash”?

If I tell you I finally quit my multiple jobs in seminary because I got myself so sick I could hardly stay awake, will you call me lazy? I still got great grades. But I nearly destroyed my health—mental and physical.
Some of these stories are still tender.

I write about this, because I want to write about shame. I want to fling my story in the face of shame.
I’ve got funny stories too. The apartment I rented dirt cheap. I came home from my diaconal ordination to a sink overflowing with sewage. Because, apparently, the cheap apartment plumbing was such that when my neighbor turned on their garbage disposal, it forced sewage up my pipes. I was mad as hell then, but I laugh now. Then there was the kindly church custodian who would let me sneak in the church after hours when I didn’t have anywhere to stay. I’d always be up and gone (after washing my hair in the sink) before anyone caught me. Man, people, I have stories!

I also have family members who have been homeless. I have friends and family who have spent years couch surfing or have moved back with parents or been foreclosed on or who can’t find a decent job (by this I mean I job that will actually pay enough to cover food, shelter, and clothing).
It sucks being poor.

Our culture teaches us to turn that inward. Its my fault. I didn’t work hard enough, I didn’t plan well for the future, I did something wrong.
If we turn our anger inward, if we allow ourselves to be ashamed, then that keeps us from seeking—from claiming our collective liberation.

So, all you out there who are 25 and 30 and 40 and have moved back home. Who have lost your home. Who have lost your job. Who have to go back to work after retirement because you can't afford not to work. Who don't make enough money to buy the good food or rent a decent place. Who are too tired after working multiple jobs to do anything but watch TV. Who are angry with yourself for not being able to work that third job and still take care of the kids. Who are trying to go to college and to work and to still scrape enough money to feed yourself at McDonalds. Who cringe when you stand in line with food stamps or WIC vouchers. Who live in that damn trailer parked in your friend’s driveway.
Stop. The. Shame. Stop blaming yourselves. Stop asking over and over what you did wrong.

The reasons that more and more of us our poor has nothing to do with our lack of work ethic or our poor planning.
We are in this together. And if anything is going to change in this nation of ours or this world of ours, it is going to be because all of us come together and reject the shame. And instead claim our dignity and our worth. And fight for it.


  1. Thank you for what you are doing, Sarah. This article is a wake-up call to all of us -- a call to compassion and empathy for those living in poverty, whether they are our family members, friends, ourselves, or others. There are SO MANY reasons why people are poor.

    1. Thanks, Susan! I really believe that if we understood the magnitude of poverty experienced all around--in the US--it would be revolutionary. So many of us experience poverty and there is far too much shame around that!

  2. Sarah, So good to hear more of your personal story, especially of your time at seminary when I knew you, but didn't really know all you were going through. I live in a neighborhood that is a mix of Irish working class and young professionals. We don't mix very well. I have had friends from the working class that have helped me understand the issues and perspective you bring. It is very important for those whose heritage has kept us out of the working class, to understand the lives of the people around usl, and those in so much of the country that we don't understand. Your post is a real blessing to all of us. We are all in the same big boat, and will need to be a united people to face the future before all of us. Thanks so much for this personal story.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Newell. We do indeed need to be a united people and I do always look for ways to bridge the gaps. I think there can be a great deal of misunderstanding between working and professional people and, as I sit between these two identities, I try to say what I can.